When I was here last year, everything was new to me. Everything was fresh and I could constantly be surprised by the newness. Being here a second time gives me a chance to see how things have changed, yet how they have also remained the same.
One of the great strengths of Benedictine life is its timelessness. It has been around for fifteen hundred years, with the form of life remaining basically the same, yet always adapted for the time and place (after all, the monks a 1000 years ago didn’t have a fleet of cars).
Last year I found it took me a couple of days to get used to the liturgy. For someone who is not used to Benedictine liturgy, it takes a while to understand when to chant, when to respond, when to be quiet, and so on. I think that last year I was so focused on getting the form right, that I didn’t get to appreciate the content. Yesterday, I found that even after a year that I did not have to struggle to keep up, and so I’ve been able to enjoy and benefit from the content much more.
One of the main differences between this year and last year is that there are no junior monks here. Every year junior monks (those are monks who have not taken final vows and have typically been part of a monastery for less than four years) from different Benedictine monasteries around the country gather for a two week conference. Last year it was here at St. Gregory’s. So instead of 30 monks, there were probably closer to 90 monks here last summer. I particularly noticed the difference during the prayer service.
(A brief digression on the setup of prayers: The chapel is built in the classic Catholic architectural design of a cross. The monks who live at St. Gregory’s take places in the arms of the cross in pews, with half of the monks sitting on the left and the other half on the right, so that they are facing each other.)
Last year all of the junior monks sat in the first dozen or so rows of the chapel, with the local monks sitting in their assigned places in the arms of the cross. I sat behind the junior monks, often around row 20 or so. Once a back-row Baptist, always a back-row Baptist. As a result, I missed some of the dynamics of the prayer routine. Last year I just chanted every line of the Psalms and the rest of the liturgy, because all I could hear was every line. Last night I was able to sit in one of the front rows, so I could actually see some of the monks sitting in their places and I could hear how it worked better. It turns out that the chant will start on the left and the monks will read a stanza, then the monks on the right will respond with the next stanza. So this morning we read Psalm 105, and it started on the left with:
“Give thanks to the Lord, tell his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples.”
The monks on the right responded:
“O sing to him, sing his praise;
Tell all his wonderful works!
Be proud of his holy name,
Let the hearts that seek the Lord rejoice.”
And the monks on the left:
“Consider the Lord and his strength;
Constantly seek his face.
Remember the wonders he has done,
His miracle, the judgments he spoke.”
And so on.
What has been nice about noticing this dynamic is being able to take a break between passages. Last year there were times when I was so busy reading aloud that I did not get to fully absorb what I was reading. By taking a break I get a moment to hear what I just said and to hear what is being said in response. I find that it is deepening my experience and enjoyment of the liturgy.
Another big difference is the fact that some of the monks are no longer here. Last year Father Augustine took us on a tour of the chapel and told us all about the stained glass windows. He was retired and confined to one of those little motorized scooter cart things. He was a nice man and you could sense his kindness and patience. Father Augustine died in December. The monastery cemetery is right next to the chapel, , so last night I was able to take a moment and go say hello to Father Augustine. The world is a lesser place without people like him in it.
The class portion of our time is taught by the Director of Spiritual Life and Formation at Perkins, Dr. Fred Schmidt, and by the monastery’s director of spiritual formation, Father Charles Buckley. Last year, however, Father Charles was working with the junior monks, and so our Benedictine instructor was Father Theodore. Father Theodore was just beginning treatment for prostate cancer, but was a kind, thoughtful, and forthcoming instructor even in the midst of his struggle. I have not seen him since I arrived, and my understanding is that he has taken a turn for the worse. I hope to be able to visit with him at some point this week.
Of course, the monks would probably not say that the death of a brother means that something has changed. Unlike most of us, the monks are really in touch with the reality of their deaths. Death’s presence is as continuous as the liturgy. And, of course, the monks bodies are buried right here too, so they never leave the community. More on Benedictines and death later.